How to Improvise
How to improvise? I know I’ve asked that question more than a few times… to more than a few people! Improvising can seem like one of the more elusive skills in music. It certainly is one of the ways in which the truly great players have made their mark. Sure – you can learn a song in its basic form and add some different arrangements. And you can change keys, and learn scales. But jumping into real improvisation and expressing yourself in such an ‘exposed’ way can be intimidating.
I think of improvising as composition ‘on the go’ – making up music on the fly. I read somewhere that that the great composers musicians of the 18th and 19th century could actually improvise classical music. Not 12 bar blues – classical music, made up on the go! Amazing. And when you listen to solos like Eddie Van Halen’s guest appearance on Michael Jackson’s Beat It you may think – where did that come from?!
As with everything in music, the best way improve is incrementally. So here are a few tips to help you make the leap:
Learn the melody
If you listen closely, you will be amazed by how many great solos are, more or less, just the straight melody of the song. So pick a song and try to learn the melody by ear – verse, bridge and chorus. The melodies of most pop/rock songs are based around the major/minor and pentatonic scales. So learn a few shapes of these scales – don’t worry about learning all of them. Remember – at this point you’re just trying to acquire the tools to play the melody. And as your first foray into improvising, simply play the melody through. As you get more comfortable with it you can stray further and further away from the original and add your own musical ideas to what you’re playing. All while keeping the original melody in mind.
Listen to the changes
As with most things in music, the best approach is to start with a simple but strong foundation. You will be surprised by how far a simple approach like simply spelling out the notes from the chords in the song will go in improvising. So get comfortable with the chords in the songs you’re playing. Then learn the notes in each chord. And maybe also learn a few different positions of the chords. Then simply play along with the changes and try playing different combinations of the individual notes in the chords and think about which work best. As you get more comfortable with the changes you can move further and further away from the original and make it your own.
Experiment with different genres
As I’ve written before, I always find it fascinating to learn what music my musical idols listen to. Don’t worry about learning jazz fusion, but try listening to it. And then maybe try some Irish Trad music. You will be amazed by how different musical ideas will subconsciously make their way into your playing. And your improvisation. Maybe just a subtle syncopation you picked up from listening to jazz. Which leads us to the next tip on how to improvise…
Rhythm is a powerful and often overlooked tool in improvisation. Once you have the melody and the changes down, try changing the rhythm to mix things up. There is actually such a thing as a rhythm solo! You can simply take the first note of a melody and shift it by half a beat – play it on the ‘up’ rather than ‘down’ beat. Or replace some of the notes with triplets. This is as powerful a tool as any new scale you may learn. So make the most of it!
So there you go, a few tips on how to improvise, now get playing!